The question is who survived 40 years of tantrums? Me or the kids? Both, but there were some close calls. I am not naturally endowed with patience. I also never studied the art and science of parenting although I should have. I plowed in, raised four kids, and am now spending a lot of time with one of my granddaughters. Of my four kids, three had very vocal tantrum phases – only one during the traditional terrible twos. One of my kids had tantrums but in a Gandhi-esque, Vietnam War protester way. He’d go limp, collapse on the floor and lay there, resisting the threat of tear gas and a ride in the paddy wagon. In some ways his passive resistance made me crazier than his siblings wailing.
Today’s tantrum from my six year-old granddaughter came after her grandfather and I declined to sit in our assigned seats at the breakfast table. Struck with the choice of obeying the six-year old or sitting where we ordinarily do, we foolishly opted for the latter. Then ensued a gradually escalating caterwaul. A relatively new phenomenon for this particular child, she’s caught on quick. The tantrum starts with a serious look, goes to a lip quiver, expands to crying, then sobbing, then full out super-crying – a class of distress that only a tantrumming child can achieve. It’s awful breakfast music, believe me. So first I ignored, then I tried to reason, and then I remembered what works.
Kids’ crying makes calm, reasonable people go off their rocker. If there was a single identifiable trigger for child abuse, it’s kids’ crying. Adults can’t handle the sound, emotion, and demand of a kids’ angry crying. Sad crying, hurt crying – they’re a lot easier to handle because the adult is not the target. But angry crying – tantrumming – is directed squarely at the adult in charge. It’s a frontal assault that creates an immediate, unavoidable visceral reaction and makes it mighty easy to react in a really bad way. With a swat, a yell, roughness. The adult becomes a kid on the playground, angry at the kid who took a swing at him. Really pissed off and out of control. And feeling justified. Presto. Child abuse.
So the trick to surviving tantrums without doing any damage? Impersonation. I impersonate a saintly being. When I’m around a tantrumming kid, like I was about 15 minutes ago, I pretend to be someone else, a calm, patient, loving, mature person capable of seeing beyond the screaming and crying that’s making me want to heave a certain someone into Lake Superior. I gather up my Mother Theresa robes and float into another room while I remind myself not to engage with the madness, to distance myself from the hysteria, and be available for the reconciliation and peace that will come a lot sooner if I resist the urge to reason, threat, cajole, or go apeshit.
So many years and such a hard lesson to learn. I send regrets and apologies to my first child in the batting order – the one with the 25-year old mom with everything to prove and the skills of a flea. And shrug my apologies to the other three kids who had to ride my rocky learning curve. Who knew? I wish I did. But I’m very glad that by the time I got to be a grandmother, I figured it out.
This is the lesson. The one that should be stitched on a pillow and put on bumper stickers. You are the person you pretend to be. Pretend to be Mother Theresa – other than the outfit, it’s not so tough.